Q3 2016: Carbon intensity at an all-time low

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by Dr Iain Staffell – Imperial College London 

With the rise of clean energy and the switch from coal to gas, the carbon intensity of Britain’s electricity is at an all-time low.

Emissions are down a third from this time last year and 56% lower than four years ago. During Q3, electricity consumption released 15 MT of CO2, around two tonnes per second.

Three quarters of emissions came from burning gas and 14% from burning coal. The rest were released abroad either in producing electricity we imported (8%) or producing and transporting biomass fuel (2%). The charts below show the amount of CO2 released by each technology, comparing Q3 2012 with 2016. The height of each block shows the carbon content per unit of electricity generated – coal releases more than twice the carbon of gas, which releases more than three times as much as biomass.* The width of each block shows how much electricity they produced each quarter. Putting these together, the area of each coloured block relates to the total emissions.

Most striking is the switch from coal to gas. Emissions from gas are up 55% in absolute terms, but this has pushed down coal output to give a considerable net saving. The total Q3 output from fossil fuels also fell 32% over these four years, from 46 to 31 TWh. Demand fell 7% over the four years so less output was needed, and the growth of low-carbon biomass and zero-carbon wind and solar can be seen to the right.

Carbon emissions from each generation technology, comparing Quarter 3 this year with 4 years:

Authors: Dr Iain StaffellProfessor Richard GreenDr Rob Gross and Professor Tim Green

Footnotes: *We report the supply chain emissions of biomass, but not of coal and gas for the sake of simplicity. In reality, emissions from producing and transporting fossil fuels increase the carbon intensities shown in the chart by around 10% for coal and 25% for gas.

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